Why Germany Is Sending Weapons to Iraq

02.09.2014 - Interview

Tribune by Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Published in the Wall Street Journal (02.09.2014).

Tribune by Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Published in the Wall Street Journal (02.09.2014).


The terror organization that calls itself the Islamic State is advancing with monstrous brutality, persecuting and killing anyone who stands in its way. In the areas they control, the IS terrorists enslave and humiliate people who do not share their beliefs. Yazidis and Christians, but also Muslims who refuse to submit to their radical ideology, are forced to leave everything behind and flee for their lives. IS now controls a transnational territory that is home to more than five million people and contains cities, oil wells, dams and airports. The fact that these terrorists include a growing number of foreign fighters from Europe is a cause of alarm for all of us.

With the advanced weapons that IS has captured, and its significant financial means, the terrorist group is a threat to the survival of Iraq’s Kurdistan region and to Iraqi statehood itself—and even to the already fragile regional order in the Middle East. Without the recent determined military intervention by the United States, Kurdish forces would not have been able to halt the advance by comparatively better-armed IS fighters.

In this dramatic situation, Germany has provided humanitarian assistance to the people fleeing from IS and supported the Kurdistan regional government by supplying food, blankets, tents and generators. Now my government has decided to expand its aid to the Kurds in the fight against the terrorists by sending weapons and military equipment.

This decision has sparked intense debate in Germany. Indeed, some people even see it as a fundamental change in German foreign policy.

I do not share this view. The fact is that Germany is taking on its responsibility in the world—in the fight against IS, but also in the Middle East, in Africa and in Afghanistan. Along with the European Union, we are particularly active in the search for a political solution to the highly dangerous crisis close to home, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Responsibility is always about concrete action. We must calibrate our engagement depending on what is at stake for the fundamental principles of a peaceful and just international order, for our own interests and our closest partner countries and allies. Germany’s skepticism about military intervention and its restrictive approach to arms exports are politically well-founded and deeply ingrained in Germans’ collective consciousness. There is no paradigm shift regarding our foreign-policy principles, which include a policy of military restraint. But in the face of a threat like the one posed by ISIS, we must not hide behind principles. We must take responsible decisions, knowing full well that they involve difficult trade-offs. We take the greatest care in making such decisions, and do so in close coordination with our European, trans-Atlantic and regional partner countries.

Where there is a threat of mass murder, where the stability and order of countries and entire regions are endangered, and where there is no chance of successful political settlements without military support, we must be willing to honestly weigh up the risks of getting involved against the consequences of doing nothing. This was why Germany decided to take part in international military interventions in Kosovo in 1999 and in Afghanistan in 2001. That is also why we decided that there were good reasons for opposing military action in Iraq in 2003.

Our opposition to the IS terrorists does not start with supplying arms, nor does it end there. IS cannot be stopped by either humanitarian or military means alone. We, the international community, must develop a comprehensive political strategy to counter this terrorist organization systematically.

In my view, four main elements are crucial here: We need a new, effective and inclusive Iraqi government in Baghdad to dry up potential support for IS by closing ranks with the Sunni tribes. We need intensive diplomatic efforts to unite the countries in the region to confront the IS threat together. We need the Islamic world’s leaders to clearly distance themselves from IS and to unmask the rank cynicism of the propagandists and ideologists claiming religious legitimacy for terrorist savagery. Finally, we need resolute steps to hamper and prevent the flow of fighters and funds to IS.

Looking at the crises spanning the Maghreb, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, many perceive that the world is coming loose from its moorings. Crisis and conflict are creeping closer to Europe, and certainties that have prevailed for 25 years since the end of the Cold War have lost their hold.

We in Europe must not indulge the illusion that we could just shut ourselves away from the world if it goes to pieces, and maybe offer a bit of humanitarian aid. Our prosperity and our security depend on our unprecedented network of political and economic ties to the whole world. Wherever order falls apart—especially in the vicinity of Europe’s borders—we will be affected too.

In Germany, we therefore need to ask ourselves objectively: What are our options, and what are our responsibilities? In doing so, we also need to be aware of our limitations. Germany is the largest country in the EU, politically stable and economically strong, but what we can contribute with humanitarian assistance, politically or militarily to conflict resolution is only meaningful and effective if implemented in close collaboration with others. When we act, we act in concert with our European and trans-Atlantic partners—this is and will remain the fundamental basis of German foreign policy.

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